Travelling through the interior of South Korea on the KTX high-speed train between Seoul and Busan, one cannot escape the hypnotic rhythm of the rising hills and valleys filled with rice paddies.
“The hills—you never forget the hills,” I heard more than one Canadian veteran of the Korean War tell me.
The hills may be timeless but one would hardly say that about South Korea. The change it has experienced in the 60 years since the armistice between North and South Korea was signed on July 27, 1953, has been called miraculous. And yet there is still a feeling of time having stood still with two armies still rigidly standing, staring at each other with contempt and suspicion along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating north from south.
That South Korea has changed was very evident as the country celebrated the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire. While the South Koreans typically mark the anniversary of the beginning of the war, the Western World prefers to celebrate the end of battles and wars. So for the first time, the South Korean government invited delegations of dignitaries and veterans to Seoul for a special ceremony to say thank you and build on the 60 years of alliance. Its theme was Our Future Together.
To mark the occasion, the Korean Cultural and Information Service, an agency of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, invited journalists from nine countries that supported South Korea with combat troops or medical units to visit Seoul, July 24-31. Legion Magazine was the only Canadian media organization in the group. Not only would we attend the ceremony at the War Memorial of
Korea on July 27, but we would also have opportunities to meet and talk with politicians and academics.
Often we would cross paths with 10 busloads of returning veterans from the 21 nations that provided combat or medical support during the 1950-53 war. They came back as part of the government-sponsored Revisit Korea program.
Among them were 10 veterans from Canada who travelled in a delegation headed by Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, accompanied by Senator Yonah Martin who was born in Seoul and Senator Joseph Day, a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Veterans Affairs.
Archie Walsh, 78, of Sydney, N.S., was one of the returning veterans. He served with the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps and remembers just how bad things were near the end of the war. “The people were starving. When we would finish a meal, particularly breakfast, there would be garbage that we had to throw out. They would go through that looking for food. We tried to stop them but, well, you couldn’t,” Walsh said.
While reviewing the conditions of Korea after the war, United States General Douglas MacArthur famously predicted, “It will take them 100 years to recover from the devastation.” Those words are posted with irony on an exhibit in the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul.
The 20th century was one of great turmoil for Korea. Although Korea had been known as the Hermit Kingdom in the 19th century, it proclaimed the Korean Empire in 1897 and began a period of modernization of its economy, military and education system. All that proved short-lived when Japan invaded and colonized Korea in 1910. Millions of Koreans were conscripted into labour and thousands were forced to join the Japanese military.
Korea gained freedom with the absolute surrender of the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. At that time both the Soviet Union and U.S. occupied the peninsula. For administrative purposes, the Soviet Union controlled the country north of the 38th parallel while the south was administered by the United States.
As the Cold War loomed, they became separate states in 1948 with North Korea becoming a Communist satellite under Kim Il-sung while South Korea became a multiparty state with a capitalist market economy under the leadership of Syngman Rhee.
On the morning of June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Within days it had captured Seoul and created a crisis at the newly formed United Nations. It was agreed that UN members would form a force of its own to drive the North Korean troops back across the 38th parallel.
Canada responded by first sending three naval ships, HMCS Cayuga, HMCS Athabaskan and HMCS Sioux and assigned No. 426 Squadron to fly regular flights between McChord Air Force Base in Washington and Haneda Airfield in Tokyo.
In August, Canada authorized the recruitment of the Canadian Army Special Force. Volunteers, many of them Second World War veterans, were called upon to form second battalions of the regular force regiments of the Royal Canadian Regiment, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal 22nd Regt. They were supported by artillery, signals and medical staff. In all, more than 26,000 Canadians served in Korea.
In July 1951, ceasefire negotiations started. They would take another two years. In that time the Canadians were fighting a defensive war, watching for enemy patrols and going on their own patrols to check enemy strength and positions. Nonetheless it was still a deadly war. By the time it ended, 516 Canadians had been killed and more than 1,200 wounded.
After the war there was a chronic shortage of food. The hills had hardly any trees left on them from the constant shelling and the land was prone to flooding. Many rural Koreans poured into the cities looking for any kind of work, noted Kim Jihong, a professor at the Korea Development Institute in Seoul, speaking to foreign journalists.
In just 60 years South Korea has become the eighth largest economy in the world and joined the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the G20 and the World Trade Organization. The average per-capita income of South Korea is 25 times that of North Korea—and that is deteriorating since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “How do you explain that gap? North and South Koreans are the same people and have been for 4,000 years. They have only been divided for 60 years [since the DMZ was created]” said Kim. “The chief difference is the incentive structure. South Korea is outward looking. North Korea is isolated and as a result its economy is stagnant.”
Since the Korean War, South Korea has made a transition from an old world economic structure where cheap labour was a major source of foreign income into a service economy. It competes with North America in the automobile market with Hyundai while Samsung is a world leader in computers and other electronics. It is the world’s second largest steel producer. Seventy per cent of all new ships are built in South Korea.
Kim says the secret of South Korea’s success lies in trust. It is a democracy with elections every five years. It has a stable legal system and private ownership is guaranteed.
The hardship of the Korean War is a distant memory for Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs Park Sung-choon. “I was five years old at the time but I remember fleeing the small fishing village where we lived.”
Although South Korea’s economy is booming, Park notes the frustration of a divided country. “The relationship (between North and South Korea) has been tense recently because of North Korea’s nuclear test launch of a long-range missile and the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (a joint North and South Korean venture which offered jobs to hundreds of North Korean workers).”
However, Park thinks the two countries will be united. “The Korean War will only be over when the two Koreas are united.”
Confidence that the two Koreas may again be united has led to the establishment of the Korean institute for National Unification. “China thinks that stabilization is best for the Korean Peninsula,” said Kim Jiwook, the acting president of the institute. “Unification is what our parents wanted. Twenty years ago support for reunification was 91 per cent. Today it is around 70 per cent so the younger generation seems less likely to support it.”
He explained it is the institute’s job to analyse the political situation and government policies in order to be ready to meet the challenge of reunification no matter how it comes.
“The Korean War will only be over when the two Koreas are united.”
Security for the simple ceremony on July 27 was tight. Those familiar with airport security systems would have been surprised to see soldiers putting automatic pistols into trays to be checked before walking under medal detectors and reclaiming the weapons on the other side.
Guests took their seats while performers demonstrated precision military drills and traditional Korean dances and music.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key spoke on behalf of all the allied countries, commending South Korea on its economic emergence and trading opportunities.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye took a tough line with recent belligerence from the north. “I will not accept any provocations that threaten the lives and property of our people,” she said. “North Korea has to give up its nuclear weapons now and change, so that it can be responsible for the freedom and livelihood of its people.”
The short ceremony ended with a choir singing the Burt Bacharach-Carole Bayer Sager song That’s What Friends Are For as schoolchildren marched on stage carrying the flags of the 21 countries represented at the ceremony.
In Busan, the large port city on South Korea’s east coast, another ceremony was held at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Korea. Here 2,267 servicemen are buried, including 378 Canadians. A Commonwealth Memorial also bears the names of 16 Canadians who died in the war but have no known grave. “I have three good friends buried here,” said Jim Burns, 79, also from Sydney, N.S., who served with Canada’s Black Watch. “They died in accidents. One of them was killed by a Sten gun which fell off a table and began firing on automatic. They were terrible weapons. You couldn’t trust them.”
The ceremony was attended by Patriots and Veterans Affairs Minister Park, the New Zealand prime minister and Prince Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, representing Great Britain.
The Canadian delegation held a separate ceremony as rain poured on the veterans who placed wreaths and poppies at the Canadian Memorial. Shortly after, Senator Day found and placed flowers on the grave of the Hearsey brothers.
Private Joseph William Hearsey of Ignace, Ont., died Oct. 13, 1951. The 22-year-old soldier with the PPCLI was the older brother of Archibald Hearsey who had joined up in the first few months of the war. Worried about his younger brother, Joseph enlisted and tried to find him once he got to Korea, but he died before the reunion could take place.
Archibald died in 2011 but left instructions in his will that he would like his ashes buried with his brother. Special permission was granted from the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs to allow the ashes to be buried in the cemetery reserved for war dead. A small ceremony was held in April 2012 and a plaque was attached to Joseph’s stone. It notes that Archibald’s ashes are also interred in the grave.
No matter how much South Korea has flourished, there is no avoiding the sense that time has stood still just an hour’s drive from Seoul when you visit the DMZ. It surrounds the demarcation line decided upon 60 years ago, running 248 kilometres from the first signboard 0001 on the Imjin River to the last one, 1292, at Dongho-ri on the east coast.
Here, busloads of visitors are greeted by U.S. Army personnel who brief them on the tensions between the two nations. Visitors are then taken into Panmunjom where the negotiations took place and cabins are set up for any ongoing discussions. This is where you see soldiers from both Koreas in a martial arts stance, staring at each other just as other soldiers from North and South Korea have since the fighting stopped.
While travelling on the KTX train to Busan, it was not the high-speed ride I was thinking about so much as the shorter, slower train ride I took a few days earlier from Imjin to Dorasan stations.
On that train and at Dorasan Station our group met veterans and other dignitaries. Dorasan is the last train stop before North Korea. No trains had run along the line since the war, until U.S. President George W. Bush visited the station in 2002.
It was here where anniversary organizers held a World Peace Concert for UN Forces in the Korean War. The station’s marble floors created eerie acoustics for the beautiful classical music and Korean folk songs performed by musicians from the 21 countries that participated in the UN action. The concert was conducted by Francesco La Vecchia of Italy with Canada’s Jeffrey Dyrda as concertmaster and first violin.
Dorasan is 56 kilometres from Seoul and 205 kilometres from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. It is hoped that some day it will be a gateway for people and goods flowing to and from North Korea, China and Russia.
The old station is in itself a symbol of the division that remains as well as the hopes for things to come.